Microsoft is making gentle waves into the world of Virtual Reality (VR) with Windows Mixed Reality, a supposed middle-ground between Augmented Reality (AR) and the VR experience we already know and love.
After creating some excitement with Microsoft Hololens - the AR device that's now entirely focused on the enterprise market - Microsoft teamed up with a number to manufacturers to create new mixed reality headsets for the consumer market. These include the Dell Visor, Lenovo Explorer, Samsung Odyssey, and both Asus and HP Windows Mixed Reality headsets.
The focus of this review, however, is the Acer (AH-101) Windows Mixed Reality headset. This new headset has some interesting potential, as it requires a less spec-heavy PC to run than a more hardcore system like HTC Vive, but with a £399/$399 price tag it's level-pegged with the already well-established Oculus Rift - and not the more affordable $300 as was suggested at the annual Acer conference back in April 2017.
Is the Windows take on Virtual Reality late to the game, or the perfect system to bolster interest, and does the Acer headset achieve the comfort and capability to make it worth buying - or should you wait for an alternative brand?
What is Microsoft Mixed Reality?
First up, let's break down the whole argument between Mixed Reality (MR) and Virtual Reality (VR).
The latter, Virtual Reality (VR), involves being entirely surrounded in a fully virtual world with zero object-based interaction crossing over with the real.
The former, Mixed Reality (MR), Microsoft argues, is when greater physical factors from the real world merge with the virtual to create interactive results. Hololens, for example, overlays positional holograms onto a floating heads-up screen which interact in a fully immersive way with the environment around you. You can walk around virtual objects in the real world, as if they're there (albeit on a tiny screen, which skews the experience somewhat).
So it may come as a surprise that Acer's so-called Windows Mixed Reality setup is, in effect, a Virtual Reality system. There's currently no option for the built-in cameras on the headset to deliver the surrounding world in digital form to the screen that your eyes see. In that respect, we would call this experience VR.
The MR aspect - limited as it is - comes into play because the same six-degrees of motion that Hololens offers are used to input into the experience. So, let's say you take a step to the left or right in the real world, the system will interpret that in the virtual world too. Pure VR, by Microsoft's definition, would only respond to head movements as input, not physical ones (which means HTC Vive clearly blurs the boundaries).
Can your machine run Windows Mixed Reality?
One of the appeals of the Windows Mixed Reality platform is the fact that it requires a far less powerful gaming machine in order to run than the higher-end VR devices. Where an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift require bleeding edge graphics cards, the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset is compatible with lesser machines. According to Acer, the minimum specifications are:
- Windows 10 Fall Creators Update
- 7th Gen Intel Core i5 with Hyper-Threading (notebooks) or 6th Gen Intel Core i5 (desktop)
- NVIDIA GTX 965M or greater, or AMD RX 460™ or greater
- HDMI 1.4 or HDMI 2.0 port support
- 8 GB RAM
- USB 3.0 Port
For Windows Mixed Reality Ultra, which allows the system to run at 90hz - which is a faster refresh rate than usual, for smoother graphics - a slightly more powerful machine is needed. If you're not sure if your machine is capable, Microsoft has a compatibility test you can run.
Assuming that the overall price of the headset and power requirements of other hardware don't put you off, then you're probably wondering if the Acer product is any good.
The bold blue design
- 2.89-inch diagonal display
- 1400 x 1400 resolution
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- 105-degree field of view
- Up to 90hz refresh rate
The first thing that struck us about the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset was the design. It has a slightly old-fashioned vibe. If someone had created a VR headset in the 90's, this might have been what it looked like. The bold blue colour certainly makes it standout from the crowd, while the two front-facing cameras (required for the six degrees of freedom motion) make it look like some sort of wonky-eyed plastic monster.
Aside from that, the design is actually pretty good. It fits more like a visor than a traditional VR headset, for starters, with a band that slips over your head with ease. A simple plastic headband fits neatly over your head and can be tightened with a wheel at the back, much in the same way the HTC Vive does when you're using the Deluxe Audio Strap. The Acer headset then flips down over your eyes, much like the equivalent Dell Visor competitor.
We like this visor design as it means you can easily flip the headset up and out of the way if you need to get back into the real world for a moment - without having to fight to take the whole thing off.
Setup and installation
In theory, setup of the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset is also a breeze compared to the HTC Vive, for example, the latter which requires installation and setup of a couple of base stations in order to accurately track your movement around a play space.
That's because the Acer headset uses those front-facing cameras instead. These cameras constantly track where you are and how you're moving, but are also there to monitor the controllers in addition to your movement in the virtual play space.
However, the initial setup does require jumping through a few simple hoops. Windows Mixed Reality requires the latest version of Windows 10 (the Fall Creators Update) which might force you into an update if you don't have it (we had to force update two regularly used machines in order to get it installed, then wait for it to happen). Anyone with experience knows how painful updating Windows can be sometimes.
The Windows update includes a Mixed Reality Portal app. Running this will allow you to run through the setup of the headset. Like other VR headsets we've tested, this setup process is relatively straightforward. On the Acer headset, it's simply a case of mapping out the play space referred to by Microsoft as "World Scale" by tracing the headset around the edge of the room.
Pairing the controllers
- Bluetooth connected controllers
- 4 x AA batteries required
- No recharge capability
The controllers for this Windows Mixed Reality headset have a similar design to those of the HTC Vive, but like the headset itself there's an obvious quality difference, as the controllers feel a little cheap. That's not to say they're a bad design, they work well and look pretty funky, especially with the bright lights on the top, but the materials quality is lacking.
The controllers are battery powered - two AA batteries for each controller - so you have to keep an eye on the charge. That means you can't just plug in and recharge when you need, so replacement batteries on standby is a must.
Setting up the controllers to work with Windows Mixed Reality is straightforward too. Underneath the panel that hides the batteries is a button that you simply need to press when prompted in order to pair with the headset and your machine. It's a simple process.
During our testing of games these controllers seemed to work well in the virtual space. Well, most of the time, as there were occasional issues with tracking where one controller or the other might fly off into the distance when we were in the virtual play area. The issue seemed to be when the headset couldn't see the controllers because they were too low down and out of view. If you're playing a game or interacting with the environment then your hands will naturally be in front of you and easier to track.
Downsides of the accessible design
The design isn't spot on, though. Although a flip-up visor is great for comfort and putting the headset on in the first place, it's not so great for immersion. We found that the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset suffered from problems where it let too much light in from behind. Light from the real world really spoils the view in the virtual one. That's VR 101.
Tightening the headset and adjusting it didn't really help with this issue as we discovered a different problem - it seems to sit uncomfortably on the nose to the point where you have to breathe through your mouth the entire time you're using it.
Not having to bother with the hassle of base stations is a bonus, but the quality of tracking isn't as great with the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset as it is with HTC Vive. We often found during our time with the Acer headset that if we turned our head too quickly there was a jolt in visuals in the virtual world, which was at best distracting, and at worst nauseating.
Access to Mixed Reality content and the Virtual Reality environment
As we've said already, although pitched as a Mixed Reality headset, this Acer device is really more of a Virtual Reality system. Donning the headset drops you into the virtual world as controlled and designed by Microsoft.
When you first turn it on, you find yourself in Microsoft's "Cliff House", a virtual house atop a cliff, surrounded by woodland (a little Seattle-esque, we feel, based on the company's HQ location). It's kitted out with various interactive Windows tools: there are screens to watch movies, dip into 360-degree videos, send mail, listen to music, and effectively navigate around the concept of an operating system's core in a virtual home environment format.
Which is interesting, but doesn't really deliver a more functional experience of Windows to any degree. It's fun, but it feels like a demo of potential rather than a purposeful reason to don a headset to watch a movie within a world of another world - when you could instead just cast to your TV via a laptop, while curled up on the sofa.
That said, we had some fun playing about with the different standard apps within the Cliff House. Moving about the rooms you can find different apps scattered about the walls and you can move and resize them to your liking.
We used Skype to successfully video call a friend and that was amusing if nothing else. All they could see was the view of us wearing the headset waving our arms about in front of the laptop's webcam. Our view was of a massive screen showing the video of them. That experience was pretty impressive as you'd be unlikely to have a similar Skype experience in the real world unless you did your calls on a large TV or projector.
Moving on, we grabbed Microsoft Edge, expanded the browser and scrolled around our favourite website (yep, that one you're reading right now). Again, you're unlikely to get that experience elsewhere and the images within the browser were big, bold and impressive. We also used Edge to watch some YouTube videos and search Google. With other videos available in the Cliff House, you could, in theory, have a bit of a sit-down, block out the real world and do your browsing and watching in Virtual Reality instead.
With Microsoft Edge, Skype and other apps being accessible, you can browse the web and watch videos and get some of the Windows experience in Virtual Reality. We had hopes of getting through the working day Minority Report-style waving our arms around while creating spreadsheets or writing documents, but it's just not there yet.
Mixed Reality games, apps and the Windows experience
- 64 games in the Microsoft Store
- Steam VR compatibility coming soon
Where the action really takes place is in the apps and games available on the Windows store. With Windows now supporting Xbox titles - and increasing interest in the gaming sector - we can see this immersive option becoming an in-point for gamers. This Acer headset acts as the initial stepping stone, Windows acts as the handrails. What's needed right now is that breakthrough moment to necessitate its worth however.
Currently, the Windows Store includes games we've played before like Superhot VR, Space Pirate Trainer and Arizona Sunshine, as well as a few other games, but the library is pretty sparse. There are just 64 games available*, which pales in comparison to those available on the Oculus Rift (1,391*) and HTC Vive (2,317*).
Of course, it is early days for the Windows Mixed Reality platform and support for Steam VR is "coming soon" on these devices, so in the future there might be a lot more content. It's just not there now, though, which is an issue if you're considering buying into the platform for gaming.
That said, we did manage to get access to the closed preview and were impressed with how seamlessly it worked. We tried a variety of Steam VR games that are compatible with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift and they all worked really well on the Acer headset too.
If you're new to the whole VR/AR/MR experience - that naming convention is never going to get any easier, eh? - then the Acer headset might seem pretty impressive. There's a lot to play around with in the Cliff House, including various virtual objects you can interact with - vases, birthday cakes, pictures, bits of furniture, and so on - all of which can be stretched, shrunk and moved around. But that alone though isn't enough to fork out £400.
We tried Space Pirate Trainer and Ghostbusters VR on the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset too, and found the graphics to not be as impressive as the similar experiences on the HTC Vive or (presumably, as we don't have one to hand) Oculus Rift... which makes us wonder why the Windows system would be more desirable than the Facebook-owned Rift.
We were impressed with the Acer's tracking ability within Space Pirate Trainer though. It's a fast-paced game with plenty of hand and body movement, so good tracking is key to enjoying the game and doing well. During our play sessions, we'd didn't experience any issues: the guns fired where we wanted and we dodged incoming volleys of enemy fire successfully.
Movement and tracking in Ghostbusters VR was a bit less accurate and could be uncomfortable at times. Our experiences in other apps were, for the most part, a bit underwhelming. We watched a few different 360 videos but felt that the quality wasn't there, the images and visuals just aren't crisp enough at this price point and considering what else is out there. If anything, the Windows Mixed Reality experience feels more like an upgraded VR experience that you'd see on the far more affordable Google Daydream View or Samsung Gear VR - it can't really compare to the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
(*at time of review)
The Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset is one of the more affordable Mixed Reality headset offerings but, unfortunately, at this £399 price point, it can't quite compete with headsets like the equally-priced Oculus Rift. Not yet, anyway.
However, as a headset, the Acer Mixed Reality system is really easy to setup and can run on relatively low-spec machines, which may make it appealing to those who don't have a pricey PC rig. We also like the ease of flipping the visor out of the way to jump back into the real world with ease.
Though there is a lot of promise in Windows' vision of so-called Mixed Reality, right now it's ultimately lacking apps and games. That's not entirely Acer's issue either, more the early doors situation of the new system. The promise of Steam VR compatibility means there will be more in the future though.
Overall, the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset isn't the perfect cut-price entry into Windows' VR that we'd hoped it would be. Oculus Rift probably makes more sense unless you're fully invested in the Microsoft ecosystem.
We hope to see more from this Windows platform in future, but for now, at launch, it's not quite good enough to warrant its cover price.
Alternatives to consider
If you're looking for an alternative Windows Mixed Reality headset then the Dell Visor is going to be difficult to beat. It features similar design innovations to the Acer headset such as a pop-up visor, while the comfortable counter-balanced fit ensures the highest comfort. In our initial preview of the Dell Visor we gave it high praise, but it, like the Acer, still relies on the content within Windows Mixed Reality to really shine.
Read the full article: Dell Visor preview
It's more expensive, sure, but the HTC Vive is the very best VR experience on offer currently. The quality is superb and there is a wealth of accessible content too. If you're looking to get into Virtual Reality, this is the most sensible choice.
Read the full article: HTC Vive review
If the price is a consideration, then the Oculus Rift should also be considered as high up your list. With recent price drops seeing this VR headset fall to just £399, it's a strong competitor for the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset, if not the more sensible choice.
Read the full article: Oculus Rift review